Today we will spend a second night at Dingboche as a part of our acclimatization plan. Dingboche (or Pheriche) is the second acclimatization stop for most trekkers. For us this is the third acclimatization stop as we spent an extra day in Deboche. We decide to take rest rather than go on a day-trek. On the acclimatization day some trekkers visit Chukhung (15,518 ft; 4,730 m), a village near the termini of Nuptse, Lhotse and Ama Dablam glaciers. At night they return to Dingboche. It is all right to go to a higher altitude during the acclimatization day; the only requirement is that you sleep at the same altitude a second night.
It’s early in the morning. Rahul tells me that the toilet is out of water. Like all other lodges there is no running water at this lodge. The water is supplied in the toilets in large tanks, which the lodge workers fill manually. Perhaps they fetch the water from near by streams. The toilet needs to be flushed with water taken from the tank with the help of a mug. I go looking for help to fill the empty tank. First, I try to find Ngima. His room is in a different building. He had asked me to knock at the window from outside, in case I needed help. I knock at his window from outside, but don’t get a response. I give up, thinking that I could be knocking at the wrong window. I go to the dining room to find someone else. I find the young woman who was sitting near the stove in the dining room yesterday. She is sweeping the floor with a broom, bending down. I ask for help, speaking in Hindi, hoping that she might understand the word pani, meaning water. She doesn’t understand me. She continues to sweep the floor without looking up. I go back to the room unable to find anyone else, hoping that someone fills the tank before we need water.
We get up later in the morning and go to the dining room for breakfast. By now Ngima and others have woken up, and someone fills the tank. The Iranians have left. There are no other customers in the dining room.
Through the dining room window we see the American high school students, their teachers, and guides on the trail outside the lodge, some of them wielding shovels and other tools. They are trying to repair the trail. I am impressed that the students are volunteering on their acclimatization day. I start to wonder who takes care of the upkeep of these trails. So far I have not seen any work crews on the trail.
Dingboche is a small village. The population was 200 in 2011. Now the village seems to be dominated by lodges rather than dwellings. Some of the old huts are still standing. They are now used for storing potatoes and grain. The walls are made by piling unhewn stones, which I guess are locally found. The stones are not cemented together. The roof is made of sheets of slate, which are also found locally. The newer homes have walls made of hewn stones or bricks, bonded together by mortar. Their roofs are made of sheet metal.
After breakfast I find Ngima washing his clothes in a basin kept on a counter outside the dining room. I decide to wash our clothes. Ngima brings me some warm water from the kitchen. He tells me to be careful as it is very cold outside. I don’t have a bar of soap; the lodge owner’s son brings me a small piece of soap. I hang the washed clothes for drying on a clothes-line found outside the lodge. Ngima brings some clothespins to secure the clothes on the line. It is cold. But it is windy, and the sun is shining. That helps to dry the clothes by the evening.
I find a small mirror near the wash basin and decide to shave. It has been a week since I shaved. After shaving I open the cap of a tube of after-shave lotion. The white lotion streams out of the tube, and I quickly screw back the cap. Inside the tube the pressure is still the same high pressure at Kathmandu. At this high altitude the outside pressure is much lower, which causes the lotion to stream out. The lotion will stop streaming out only when the pressure inside the tube becomes equal to that outside. Perhaps this is what is occurring in our capillaries: the fluid leaks out until the pressure inside our blood vessels decreases and becomes equal to the pressure outside.
This lodge is powered by solar power. There are solar panels installed on its roofs. There is a parabolic dish solar water heater in the yard. Lodge employees keep aluminum kettles filled with water on a stand sticking out from the center of the parabolic dish. The hot water is periodically transferred into vacuum flasks.
Ngima tells me that they do not generate power from hydro or wind in this region. He feels that Tibet is better developed than this region. People there have jobs, and the government helps people with housing. But the government there is strict. On a Kailash Parikraman trek, the Chinese officials stopped his group members many times, to check their papers. There is hardly any checking on this trail.
There is no police station or hospital in Dingboche. If the residents or trekkers need police assistance, the policemen must come from Namche by foot, Ngima tells me. The closest hospital is in Pheriche, which is run by the Himalayan Rescue Association, “a nonprofit non governmental organization, which was established in 1973 with an objective to prevent deaths from Acute Mountain Sickness and other accidents and illness that can be encountered in the mountains of Nepal.”
In the afternoon, two young women come to see the owner’s wife, I think, for a social visit. The owner’s wife is happy to see them. The three women drink tea and happily chat at the far end of the dining room. After the visit the two women take the trail heading toward Deboche and soon disappear in the distance. I am amused by this social call occurring at this remote fringe of human society. I wonder what topics they might be talking about: weather, deals at the bazaar, crazy trekkers …?
The sun is ready to set, and it becomes dark as clouds move into Dingboche. As the clouds blow past us they shed snow flakes, making us feel cold. Ngima tells us that we will reach base camp after two days. I had lost track of time and was thinking that it will take three more days. I am happy to hear that base camp is reachable in two more days.
At night I experience the same problem I experienced during the last two nights. I wake up feeling suffocated and need to take deep breaths. This makes me very uncomfortable. I go in and out of a dream state. When I wake up, I am aware of what I was dreaming. Whatever I was seeing in my dream is then associated with a feeling of deep discomfort. It does not matter that the dream was about something non-threatening, or in fact, trivial. For example, if I see opening a box in the dream state, recalling that on waking up feels uncomfortable for no reason. No amount of reasoning can overcome the discomfort. The rational side of my brain is now incapable of evoking any comforting thoughts. It seems to have no control over the fear center of the brain (figuratively speaking1). This is what evolution has bestowed upon me. Better take something — anything — associated with breathing difficulty seriously. Even in the face of good evidence to the contrary, do not ignore anything that appears to be life threatening. The fear center of the brain does not take any chances.” Without this warning system to protect us from predators and other dangers, we’d have been dinner long ago on the savanna.”2 Perhaps it is this fear and the extreme caution it engenders that kept my ancestors alive long enough, so that I can wake up in panic, in the middle of the night, at this remote village in Nepal.
I sit up and get some relief from the fear. Later, after I calm down I am struck by the complete separation of fear and rational thinking centers in the brain. I understand that fear and rationality dwell in two realms of the brain, and fear always trumps rational thought. I start thinking that this could be the basis of deeply held beliefs such as religion, which people tend to defend even going to great extremes. No amount of evidence or reason can shake such beliefs.
Before starting the trek, I had imagined that nights will be a welcome change after a long day of arduous climb, and that I will be so tired that I will hit the bed and fall asleep in no time and remain asleep for a long time. I had thought that waking up in the morning and getting out of the warmth of the sleeping bag into the cold of the morning air would be the hardest part of the day. I had read about the sleeplessness experienced at high altitudes. But I had not realized that this sleeplessness is not like anything I have experienced at sea level. It is not like the sleeplessness caused by too much excitement,too much coffee or too many worries. This sleeplessness makes you fear the night itself. The night and the act of lying down become associated with discomfort. You cannot wait for the night to end. You cannot wait to get out of the sleeping bag and start walking.
- Joseph E LeDoux, “The Amygdala Is NOT the Brain’s Fear Center.” 2015.
- Richard A. Friedman, “A Drug to Cure Fear“, Op-Ed, The New York Times, JAN. 22, 2016.
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